In response to data showing tens of thousands of reports of abuse and neglect inflicted on people with special needs in New York every year, a state agency was created to investigate claims and prosecute offenders. But mounting evidence of the agency's ineffectiveness means that business as usual must not be allowed to carry on unchecked.
The Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs opened in 2013 and reported that more than 7,000 reports in its first month of operation quickly led to 1,300 investigations. In five years, it has substantiated 16,000 cases of abuse and neglect, leading to 550 arrests and more than 400 people being permanently barred from working with the disabled in New York.
Those numbers alone show that the Justice Center is an important agency to have because the clientele it is responsible for includes the most vulnerable among us.
Having said that, there are still too many lingering questions as to the agency's overall effectiveness and openness about how it operates. Evidence points to too few abuse claims being thoroughly investigated, or worse yet, altogether ignored. And state auditors have had little cooperation gaining access to thousands of records that might shed light on the agency's performance.
A spokesperson for Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in 2012 that the Justice Center would bring "a new level of accountability and transparency into the state's system." But despite best intentions, the agency has been dogged by questions of accountability and transparency failures.
A group of members of Congress from New York requested this week that the Department of Justice investigate the agency. And while that may appear to be a dramatic move, we believe it's appropriate in this case.
The initial reaction by the Justice Center was to argue that its work should not be politicized over "false claims and inaccuracies" regarding its operations. We agree that politics should play no part in this, and that's why a federal investigation actually makes more sense than having the state Legislature or the governor's office becoming the arbiters of the agency's effectiveness.
An independent look by an office with no connections to New York politics might help the agency move ahead in a positive manner, because there is a lot of important work to be done — and ample evidence that there is also a lot of room for improvement.
The Citizen editorial board includes publisher Rob Forcey, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.